Animal Fact Sheets

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SIDE-NECKED TURTLE

(Podocnemis unifilis)


 

Classification and Range

Turtles and tortoises make up the order Chelonia. Side-necked turtles (suborder Pleurodira) are found only on the island of Madagascar and continents of Africa, Australia and South America. Most of the turtles we are familiar with are more closely related to each other than to side-necked turtles. Yellow-spotted side-necked turtles belong to the family Pelomedusidae, one of two families which make up the suborder of side-necked turtles. Yellow-spotted side-necked turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) are found throughout the Amazon and Orinoco drainages.

Habitat

They usually are found in the tributaries of larger rivers. During the flood season, they avoid fast-moving waters by taking up residence in lakes and in flooded forests.

Length and Weight

A turtle's "length" is expressed as the length of its shell from front to back in a straight line, not measured over the curve of the top of the shell. The largest yellow-spotted side-necked turtles are females, and the maximum length for a female is about 18 inches (45 cm). Females at Woodland Park Zoo are slightly smaller than the record length and weigh about 14 pounds (6.5 kg). Males weigh about 5-6 pounds (2.5-2.8 kg)

Life Span

Up to (approximately) 70 years

Diet

In the wild: Mainly vegetable matter, grasses, fruits and leaves, but also carrion (dead fish and animals) and mollusks.

At the zoo: Greens and fruits, “"raptor diet" (a ground meat diet intended for birds of prey), and "turtle jello" which contains fish and generous amounts of vitamins and minerals

Reproduction

A male yellow-spotted side-necked turtle courts a larger female by nipping at her feet and tail. He then swims above her and curls his relatively longer tail around the edge of her shell. His copulatory organ emerges from his cloaca and introduces semen into the cloaca of the female. A few weeks later, under cover of darkness, the female lays about two dozen hard-shelled, slightly-elongated eggs in a nest she has dug on the riverbank. The babies, which are slightly larger than a 25-cent piece, hatch out in a little over two months.

Life Cycle

A few days after hatching, the baby turtles begin looking for food on their own, while trying to stay away from the many animals who prey on very small turtles: birds, snakes, large fish and frogs, and even many kinds of mammals. The baby turtles have very obvious yellow spots on their heads, which become reduced as they grow. Males keep some of the yellow spotting; females lose their spots altogether

Side-necked: What's That All About?

Most of the familiar kinds of turtles, members of the suborder Cryptodira, protect themselves from danger by pulling their heads and necks back into their shells by curving their cervical spine (the bones of the neck) into an "S" in a vertical plane. You'd be able to see that's if you X-rayed a turtle from the side. A side-necked turtle is so-called because it does not pull its head and neck directly back into its shell; instead, it tucks its head and neck under the edge (the margin) of the shell to one side, curving its neck in a horizontal plane.

Location at the Zoo

Yellow-spotted side-necked turtles are on exhibit in two locations at Woodland Park Zoo: a number of immature turtles can be seen in one of the aquatic exhibits in the Tropical Rain Forest. A group of approximately 24 adults and juveniles inhabits the large turtle pool in the Day Exhibit, where this species has lived for more than 25 years and where more than 70 babies have been produced since 1985. Other turtle species that can be seen in the Day Exhibit are the Egyptian tortoise, redfoot tortoise and the Indian star tortoise

Conservation Connection

Although the yellow-spotted side-necked turtle is an internationally protected endangered species, it is also an important food resource for the people who live in Amazonia, who harvest eggs and hunt the turtles for their meat. The Brazilian government, however, has undertaken an ambitious protection program. Armed guards are used to protect the important nesting sites of this and other hunted turtle species. This allows the turtles to nest safely and the eggs to hatch without human interference. As a result of this successful program, hundreds of thousands of these endangered turtles are expected to hatch in these protected areas each year and disperse into the waterways of the Amazon river system.

How You Can Help!

The effort to save endangered species like the yellow-spotted side-necked turtle requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Don't buy products made from wild animal parts. Don't buy wild-caught turtles and other animals for pets. Contact your elected representatives and express your views about conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.

Contact Woodland Park Zoo at webkeeper@zoo.org to find out other ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Discover more about turtles by contacting the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles at 303 W. 39th St., PO Box 626, Hays, KS 67601. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.

Reptiles as Pets

We do not recommend reptiles as pets for most people as they require very specialized diets and environments. We also receive hundreds of requests each year to take former pet iguanas, boas and other reptiles but we cannot accept these due to space, health and unknown backgrounds. If you need to find a reptile or amphibian a new home, we suggest you contact a local herpetological group in your area.

In the Puget Sound region, contact the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society as a resource. If you do choose to get a reptile as a pet, please learn as much as possible about their care and the best species before making your decision and never accept wild-caught animals as pets or release non-native reptiles or amphibians into the wild.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Alderton, David. 1988. Turtles & Tortoises of the World. Facts on File, New York, NY. 191 p.

Harless & Morlock, eds. 1979. Turtles, Perspectives & Research. John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY. 695 p. 

Pritchard, Peter C. H. 1979. Encyclopedia of Turtles. TFH Publications, Neptune, NJ. 895 p. \

Pritchard & Trebbau. 1984. Turtles of Venezuela. Society for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford, OH. 403 p.

For the Kids!

Matero, Robert. 1993. Reptiles. Kidsbooks, Inc., Chicago, IL. 29 p.

Zoobooks. 1993. Turtles. Wildlife Education, Ltd., San Diego, CA. 18 p.

Side-necked turtle Taxonomy

Phylum: Chordata
Class:Reptilia
Order:Testudines
Family:Podocnemididae
Genus:Podocnemis
Species:P. unifilis

Side-necked turtle Fascinating Facts

  • Yellow-spotted side-necked turtle babies which hatch from eggs incubated at less than 90° F (32° C) will all be males, while eggs kept just slightly warmer at 92° F (33° C) will produce exclusively females!
  • Compared to many other water turtles, yellow-spotted side-necked turtles are very aquatic, only rarely coming out of the water to bask!
  • Recent fossil discoveries of this species from the Pleistocene period (~ one million years ago) have been found on the island of Anguilla in the Lesser Antilles (near Puerto Rico). This indicates a much larger past distribution.
  • Red-footed tortoises are also called the “jabuti-piranga” by local people!
  • All turtles lay eggs; none give live birth (as many snakes and lizards do)!
 
 
 
 

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